an exchange about political correctness, pedagogy, and LANGUAGE


A reader of a post of mine from the day before yesterday

“Mozart, Alexander L. Lipson, and Russian 1 with Professor Gribble”

Mozart, Alexander L. Lipson, and Russian 1 with Professor Gribble

sent me an email.

His response was complimentary. However, he did critique a few assertions I made, namely, the following (these are my words):

I love studying grammar and cannot understand why modern day self-appointed language “experts,” as they style themselves, want to or simplify, essentially emasculate — in the name of political correctness or conforming to their misguided, benighted theories of how language and English composition should be taught — language instruction.

[Addendum] The 1960’s, a learned friend of mine once opined, was the Golden Era of American education. I would not dispute this. I experienced it in English and history courses, in foreign language courses, and in mathematics instruction. To get an idea of how low conceptions of foreign language pedagogy have sunk since Alexander Lipson’s time, one might take a look at the following article: “Toppling the Grammar Patriarchy,” by Carmel McCoubrey, op-ed, The New York Times, November 16, 2017



The respondent to my post, a high school Latin teacher, wrote:

As one teaching a language today I do take issue with a couple of your assertions:

— to say the sixties was a Golden Era in American education is to assume it is now in a period of decline. Surely it is under assault (by the current administration, for starters), and educators have much to learn from successful models elsewhere (take Finland, for example). But there are many noteworthy successes that combine the best of traditional approaches with effective innovation.

— in the New York Times article to which you refer the teachers who ask for change on both philological and philosophical grounds raise important issues. To dismiss them as PC police with misguided and benighted theories is a straw-man argument. I, for example, will inform my students that 99 Roman women and one Roman man would normally be referred to as Romani, masculine gender. That is the fact. But this then invites a discussion of how ancient Roman society was patriarchal, as revealed in so many ways in their language, and what are issues with patriarchy then and today. The word virtus or “virtue” in ancient Rome meant manliness (vir = man) as shown, for example, in bravery in battle. In Victorian England virtue probably most often referred to a woman’s chastity. Gender as it pertains to language and grammar is a legitimate issue in constant need of review and revision, so while I might not agree with every position taken by the French women [discussed in the New York Times article], I respect what they are doing.



I responded by email as follows:

I guess we have to agree to disagree.

I do appreciate that you read my blog post and took the time to respond and critique it.

I respect your opinions and how you present them.

My view is that

— critiquing current trends such as political correctness does not necessarily imply faulty thinking or a straw man

— languages and their grammars are organic — the product of a long evolution — and should not be messed with

— educational standards have declined out of a zeal to make the curriculum “inclusive” and palatable to all … you can see it in English and writing classes, math, social studies, etc.

I realize that you are a foreign language teacher with impressive academic credentials. It seems that you have surpassed me in the study of foreign languages and knowledge of linguistics.

Still, if it’s “la table” in French and “el mano” in Spanish and the “collective pronoun” in French for they is “ils,” masculine, I think things should remain that way and the language police should be shunted aside.

I don’t like change.

Languages have such complicated, intricate grammars. … I have read that this is true of languages of unlettered, supposedly “primitive” civilizations such as the Iroquois family of languages (which I read about in a classic work by Lewis Henry Morgan) … they are exquisite structures that should inspire reverence as the study of plants would.

To mess with languages to me is equivalent to uprooting a stately old oak tree and trying to “treat” it chemically to produce nicer foliage after being replanted.


— Roger W. Smith
  November 20, 2017



See also my post:

“will ‘ladies and gentlemen’ go the way of the dodo?”

will “ladies and gentlemen” go the way of the dodo?

10 thoughts on “an exchange about political correctness, pedagogy, and LANGUAGE

  1. Pete Smith

    Languages do change over time — don’t they? And they change for many reasons. If language can’t change, shouldn’t we all be speaking the English of Beowulf?

  2. Roger W. Smith

    You seem to have missed the point. Or perhaps I should have made my key point clearer. Of course, languages change — I would use the word evolve (as do species). It can be seen in English, including changes in usage. But, this is something that happens naturally, without the intervention of language police.

  3. Pete Smith

    I was reacting to your definitive statement “I don’t like change.”

    I understand your point about evolution but the concern about sexism in languages may be just another evolutionary factor. For example, I was a strong proponent of changing from “Christmas party” to “holiday party” — why leave out Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists? Despite Trump’s dislike of this change, it seemed to evolve naturally and logically. Would you attribute this to “language police” as well?

  4. Roger W. Smith

    I don’t see the concern about sexism in language as an “evolutionary factor.”

    Yes, I do see the change to “holiday party” as something the language police implemented. But, if it’s an office party or such an occasion attended by people of different faiths, yes, holiday party seems right. (Although I hate bloodless Orwellian locutions.)

    I probably should have deleted the sentence “I don’t like change” and had in fact considered deleting it.

    I see messing around with French (also English) possessive pronouns as nitpicking by officious “language busybodies” who should leave their native tongue alone.

  5. Pete Smith

    Understand your comments and think that much of the political correctness concerning language over the past few years has been idiotic, as you have frequently pointed out. However, there are no “language police,” just individuals who feel that certain things should change, and there are enough of them to make this a matter of material debate. Why isn’t this just another form of evolution?

  6. Roger W. Smith

    Pete — It would take me another “essay” to explain my point of view, and I am not sure I am that capable of effectively doing it. But, just as there were Thought Police in “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” and a Newspeak dictionary was underway, wherein many words would be abolished from English, there sure are “language police,” busybodies, or whatever you want to call them who are active today trying to retool English for the sake of political correctness. An example would be pronouns. Languages have evolved so that most have masculine and feminine pronouns. I say, leave them alone! I loved studying French and admired the beauty and intricacy of its grammar. This included learning that while “table” has no gender in English, it does in French. I don’t know why, it just EVOLVED that way. I used to love the word “spokesman” — it had an Anglo Saxon ring to it. (I am probably wrong about its actual derivation.) Now, it’s the bloodless locution “spokesperson.” At the university where I worked, we had a department “chair.” Was he there to be sat upon? What’s wrong with “chairman”? (He was a man.) Your point that languages do change is a good one. It’s enriching when it happens. Think about all the words English has absorbed from other languages. And, yes, we used to have “thou” and “thee.” Now it’s “you.” (It is my understanding that Noah Webster did have an agenda when he wrote his famous speller; he simplified the spelling of many words such as the British “almanack.”) So, grammar does evolve. Let it evolve naturally, from the ground up, as it is spoken by living, breathing people, not as we are told to speak or write it by the “language police.” What you call “evolution” of language is not evolution, it’s a form of social engineering, so to speak, except in this case it’s not social policy, it’s language rules being imposed upon us.

  7. Pete Smith

    My sense is the people you’re calling the “language police” are people who want to change the language for various reasons, including but not exclusively politically correct types. They are not government officials as in Orwell’s Thought Police. If I’m wrong, who appoints these people and for which department do they work?

  8. Roger W. Smith

    Pete — I am using “language police” in the figurative sense. Not to be snide, but I would think that would be obvious. The Orwwell analogy seems germane, but in Nineteen Eighty-Four, it was a case of government officials who wanted to basically wipe out English and replace it with Newspeak, for political reasons and to exercise thought control.

    Who are the language police? I am not certain; I have not done and would not be interested in doing a study to profile them. Many of them are feminists. Many are academics or educators. Quite a few come from journalism and publishing. They include bureaucrats such as people who draft official documents and the New York Transit officials who have decided that it’s no longer permissible to say “ladies and gentlemen” when subway announcements are made.

    What I care about, solely, and object strongly to is what I perceive to be attempts to sanitize, defang, reconfigure the language in accord with some ideological agenda. I love my native tongue. I know that it is continually evolving and changing, but I am strongly opposed to busybodies trying to orchestrate this and to tell us, ordain, what is or is not permissible. That’s what I mean when I say I don’t like change. Let our precious language grow, develop, evolve, and endure like a tree. (The metaphor is apt.)

  9. Pete Smith

    I think you’ve missed my point. Yes, I know that you’re using the language police in a figurative sense, but there is a huge difference between a New York Transit official changing a recorded announcement (or my changing Wyatt’s Christmas Party to a Holiday Party) and Orwell’s organized and government-sponsored thought police. What’s happening now (and what has happened throughout recorded history) is that individuals are deciding on their own to change their language in ways they believe is important, and therefore English everywhere is growing and evolving, just like a tree.

    No tree endures forever. You of course don’t have to agree with changing “him” to “he/she” (a phrase I hate, by the way, and have tried always to avoid). People who do like this change aren’t necessarily busybodies — they are just using language that is important to them, for whatever reasons. Your desire to keep old trees standing is no different from their desire to lop off a branch here and there.

  10. Roger W. Smith

    You state: “Your desire to keep old trees standing is no different from their desire to lop off a branch here and there.” There is a big difference. What the language police are doing amounts to what the Robespierres of the world have done; fanatics with an agenda to tear apart and remake the language according to their dictates; fanatics who are ignorant, unlettered, and uncultured and who have no respect for lanauge. The situation is dire. Too bad you can’t see that.

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